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Stacking Review - Miniature World, Full-Size Fun

We could use more games like Stacking. It’s charming, original, fun, and the perfect size for its ideas. Imagine Portal but with Russian nesting dolls. 

Double Fine’s latest downloadable morsel learns important lessons from the Portal school of game design. For a small fraction of full retail price, it delivers a compact experience that’s a good value without overstaying its welcome. It lasts long enough to charm you into loving it, but no longer. 

The question of value is one of the biggest issues the gaming industry is currently facing. Games can last anywhere between five minutes and hundreds of hours while costing as little as a dollar or as much as sixty. In other words, we spend a lot of time thinking about how much our games are worth these days and there’s no easy answers.

What is clear is that you don’t see many games like Portal. These gaming middle children, so to speak, can provide a dose of originality not possible with expensive games that have to play it safe while offering bigger budget thrills than what’s possible in the bargain bucket. 

The industry needs more great titles in this category, but it’s hard to find a place for them. Downloadable gems such as Limbo are leading the way in this area and Stacking will surely soon find its way into the hearts of many gamers as well for the same reasons as others of its ilk. Its concise tale packs the charm and satisfaction of a game many times its price.

The idea behind Stacking is fittingly simple. Charlie Blackmore is a tiny boy from a family of chimney sweeps. He also happens to be a Russian nesting doll. This gives him the ability to hop inside of other dolls and take control of them. Each doll has a special ability and these abilities are used to solve puzzles in the classic adventure game tradition on Charlie’s quest to rescue his family from the evil Baron. Oh, and he’s wrestling with the issue of child labor while he’s at it.

Not every day you see that subject broached in a humorous light, eh?

That’s pretty much all there is to it. I spent my hours with the game happily exploring the game’s worlds, collecting all of the unique dolls types, solving the puzzles, and causing mischief. 

Completionists are likely to get more value out of Stacking than those who don’t like to stop and smell the virtual roses. The game hands out rewards for solving each puzzle with multiple solutions, finding every collectible, and filling out everything on the list of “Hi-Jinks”. It’s probably possible to blow through the game in a single sitting by ignoring all the optional content, but taking it slowly and exploring every corner of the vibrant settings is the way to go here, both because it’s a lot of fun and because the game would be far too short otherwise.

Thankfully, finding all of this content proves rewarding. Whether I was clearing out a room of stuffy noblemen by using a gassy doll to fart into a fan or scaring the wits out of a tough guard using a truly vicious-looking clown from inside a jack-in-the-box straight out of some poor child’s worst nightmare, the various tasks were never tedious. 

Later on, the game does introduce more complex puzzle solutions that involve using multiple dolls at once and it’s here that my only real complaint with the game took shape. Once I got into the swing of things, it became immensely satisfying to figure out the game’s cryptic clues and solve a brain teaser, however I couldn’t help but wish the game required complex thinking a little more often. The best “aha” moments the game has to offer are mostly near the end and I wanted a few more of them. Still, when a game leaves you pining for more that’s generally a good sign and so it is here. 

Double Fine is known for their humor, and Stacking won’t disappoint, but the tone is different than the studio’s past efforts. Much of the levity comes from either the setting or interacting with the environment rather than outright humorous dialog. It seems as if they were content here to let the lighthearted setting and retro trappings carry the tone and not overdo it by squeezing in unnecessary jokes everywhere. Stacking shows that Tim Schafer’s team is capable of a surprising amount of versatility that makes me even more anxious to see what they have in store for the future.

Stacking’s world is like a diorama from a child’s toy box come to life. From the cardboard cutout waves lapping at the side of the cruse ship, to the turret that fires croquet balls, to the sphinx made out of cheese, every aspect of the vibrant environments is bursting with creativity. I honestly feel I got my money’s worth simply by getting to explore such amazing locales. Double Fine’s art department deserves a raise for this one.

The rest of the presentation is equally excellent. Stacking is set during the industrial era and this not only gives the art a wonderfully retro feel, it also gave Double Fine the excuse to present the game’s story via entertaining silent film shorts. These vignettes take the diorama theme and run with it, as pieces of scenery drop down from the ceiling held up by string and an elegant curtain draws closed as if over a stage to serve as a transition. Backing up these scenes, and the rest of the game, is a simply brilliant classical score with some beautiful piano work that makes even this metalhead want a copy of the soundtrack. 

Stacking is proof that Double Fine has finally found a comfortable home in the downloadable segment and I can only hope it finds success there because they certainly deserve it. Costume Quest was a fun game that was funny and charming but ultimately a bit repetitive. For $10 it was an easy recommendation, but I think they pushed the concept as far as it could go. With Stacking they’ve delivered a game that left me wanting more in the best way. Every element of the title is superb. It may be simple in some ways and it doesn’t lend itself as well to multiple plays like some of its short brethren (such as Limbo and Portal) so it is comparatively lacking in replay value, but if you have a place in your heart for the artistic and the unique, you won’t be disappointed with Stacking. 

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    Superb Site, Keep up the great work. Appreciate it!
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    Zestful Contemplation - Blog - Stacking Review - Miniature World, Full-Size
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    Zestful Contemplation - Blog - Stacking Review - Miniature World, Full-Size

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